Thursday, June 4, 2015

Examining the Origins of Abbott and Costello's Burlesque Routines: "Who's On First?" part 3

No baseball cross-talk routine is referenced in newspapers before Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.  Plenty of comedy and musical routines made use of a baseball theme.  Reportedly, these bits were a treat for the baseball fans in the audience.  But nothing described by theatre critics related to a bunch of baseball players with funny names.  Much was said of a street named "Watt," but nothing was said about a second baseman named "Watt."  It was the St. Louis Cardinals' "Gashouse Gang," which included Dizzy Dean, Daffy Dean, Dazzy Vance and Ducky Medwick, that may have inspired the routine, but these sports figures didn't become nationally known until 1934. 

I assure you that I investigated this matter extensively.  I am more than happy to share with you what I found.

There was small baseball bits that left little impression.  At a benefit show in 1919, Broadway actor Leo Carillo came out on stage posing as an Italian immigrant and he proceeded to describe in broken English his experience attending his first American baseball game.  I am sure that it was a cute routine that got a few laughs, but it was not something that was going to end up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  In 1912, comedy team Eddie Gerard and Jesslo Gardner performed a baseball skit called "Dooley of the Diamond" at Chicago's Linden Theatre.  The routine was unremarkable and never blew out of the Windy City. 

Let me now list the Top Ten notable baseball routines that preceded Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine.

1. The One-Man Baseball Game

In the early 1900s, Slivers Oakley did a famous one-man pantomime baseball routine.  I described the legacy of this exquisitely funny routine in my book The Funny Parts.

2. Stealing Home

New York Giants outfielder Mike Donlin had a flamboyant personality that always drew him to actors and the acting profession.  It surprised no one when, in 1908, he accepted an offer to join his actress wife Mabel Hite in a vaudeville act.

Mike Donlin and Mabel Hite
The couple made their debut at the prestigious Hammerstein's Theatre with a comedy sketch called "Stealing Home."  The reviews were favorable.  The Variety critic wrote, "Mike Donlin as a polite comedian is quite the most delightful vaudeville surprise you ever enjoyed, and if you miss him you do yourself an injustice.  Public idols of the athletic field and fistic arena we have had without number.  They are usually to be identified by a certain hang-dog sullenness mixed with a curious attitude of defiance toward their unaccustomed surroundings.  Perhaps Mrs. Donlin (Mabel Hite), finished performer that she is, has had something to do with the coaching process that has made a first-class light comedian out of a crack league batter and fielder."  The act ended four years later upon Hite's death from intestinal cancer.  A Variety critic still remembered the couple's act fondly years later.  He wrote in 1921, "Sports stars have been invading vaudeville from time to time for the past decade with very, very few ever qualifying from an entertainment angle.  One of the notable exceptions was Mike Donlin, who broke in with his wife, the late Mabel Hite.  Mike and Mabel did a vaudeville turn in which Mike good naturedly was the butt of the fun making.  Donlin elected to follow the stage as a career and developed into a first-class actor."

3. The Baseball Girl

In 1909, Miss Ray Cox, who billed herself as a "southern comedienne," toured vaudeville houses throughout the country with a baseball sketch called "The Baseball Girl."  Cox played an ebullient college girl who adores her school's baseball team and provides a running commentary as she watches their latest game.  The sketch became so popular that Edison Record contracted Cox to record it.  You can listen to the recording below.

The baseball bit became a featured act at a revered show palace, Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre, in 1910.  Of course, the imitators followed.  In 1912, Mrs. Curtis Burnley toured with a knockoff routine called "The Society Girl at the Races." 

4. Swat Milligan

Bozeman Bulger, a columnist for the New York World, wrote a popular series of far-fetched yarns about an awesomely powerful, supersized baseball player named Swat Milligan.  Swat was part Paul Bunyan and part Baron Munchausen.  Bulger granted his consent when he was approached by a theatre producer to lend the Milligan character to a vaudeville sketch.  The opportunity to see a flesh-and-blood Milligan excited fans of Bulger's stories.  The "Swat Milligan" sketch debuted to enthusiastic reviews in June, 1909.  The following review was published in Variety: "This little slang baseball skit was light and breezy enough to restore one to an almost human frame of mind."  In the sketch, the baseball giant meets up with a tiny mite of a girl (4' 7" actress Viena Bolton) who tells him that she is his greatest fan and proves to him that she knows baseball slang better than him.  A Pittsburgh Press critic wrote, "The dialogue between [Swat] and the little girl is intensely funny. . . [Bolton's] handling of the slang lines was a revelation to theatre-goers."  It was a pretense of the act that this burly man was the actual Swat Milligan, which meant the actor in the role could never receive billing.  The skit successfully toured on vaudeville circuits for the next two years. 

5. The Squeeze Play

In 1910, Sadie Sherman was featured opposite Chicago Cubs second baseman Joe Tinker in a baseball skit called "The Squeeze Play."  Reportedly, Tinker had become a better actor since he had stepped before the footlights in a previous sketch called "A Home Run."  The ball player was adeptly aided by the multi-talented Sherman.  Sherman, who was billed as a "singing comedienne," was a singer, mimic and monologist.  A Variety critic described the act as follows: "The act is laid in a fourth story apartment overlooking the Cub ball park.  The rising of the curtain discloses Sadie Sherman describing to a friend by telephone a finish fight between the Cubs and Giants.  Mike Donlin hits the ball and it goes through the window of the apartment house.  Tinker bursts up four flights of stairs for it. . . He takes the young woman to an imaginary baseball game, which leads up to a song which he does nicely.  It was written especially for him.  The sketch made a tremendous hit at the Haymarket.  The players were laden with flowers and Tinker was forced to take half a dozen bows and then make a speech.  Merry."  This act was sufficiently successful to inspire imitators.  In 1911, sisters Kathryn and Violet Pearl lent beauty and talent to an act that featured stars of the world champion Athletics, Chief Bender, Jack Coombs and Cy Morgan.  In 1912, fair comedian May Tilly and New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson teamed up on the vaudeville circuit to perform a romantic comedy sketch called "Curves."

The bravest of ballplayers went on stage on their own.  In 1911, Chicago Cub pitcher Leslie "King" Cole and Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Marty O'Toole engaged in comedy banter in a sketch written by fabled sportswriter Hugh Fullerton.  In 1912, a quartette of professional baseball luminaries got together in an act simply called The Four Ball Players. 

By 1921, the novelty of these acts had worn thin.  A Variety critic wrote, "The average vaudeville fan doesn't crave a Ruth or a Dempsey on a vaudeville bill.  After watching the efforts of the 'stars' to stagger through a 14-minute routine the vaudeville fan feels he has in some measure been a contributor toward a benefit to tide the athlete over the winter months."

6. Baseballitis

The 1910 sketch "Baseballitis" centered on a wife (Eleanor Wisdom) who can no longer tolerate her husband (Arthur Evers) being an inveterate baseball fan.  The woman decides that, if she flirts with another man, it will make her husband jealous and cure him of his infatuation with the sport. 

7. Slow-Motion Baseball 

An umpire warily scrutinizes the antics of Al Schacht and Nick Altrock.

Nick Altrock was a star pitcher with the Chicago White Sox until an arm injury in 1906 diminished his pitching ability.  Altrock remained on the team as a pinch-hitter for the next six years.  In 1912, Altrock accepted a coaching job with the Washington Senators.  During these years, the sportsman spent much of his time entertaining players in the coaching box.  Washington Post columnist John Kelly wrote, "Altrock engaged in broad physical comedy on the sidelines: pretending to golf, imitating the pitcher’s windup, wrestling with himself, reenacting Jack Dempsey’s prizefights."  Altrock soon became known in newspapers as the "Clown Prince of Baseball" and was offered a deal to star in a vaudeville act.  Altrock was originally paired with another baseball prankster, Germany Schaefer, but the two men fought constantly and Schaefer was replaced by Al Schacht.  A Variety critic was a big fan of the Altrock-Schacht team.  He wrote in 1921, "This pair have more entertainment crammed into their 16 minutes of hokum than all the rest of the sporting and freak acts combined. . ."  Altrock was praised for his pantomime abilities.  A highlight of his act was his "slow-motion baseball" bit.  Altrock reportedly earned more as a comic than Babe Ruth did as a ballplayer.  The act had a long run, playing on vaudeville circuits from 1912 to 1929.


8. The Bull Pen 

In 1922, Will Rogers created the baseball sketch "The Bullpen" with sportswriter Ring Lardner.  According to Rogers, the objective of the sketch was to depict the familiar characters of our national pastime.  Rogers played a veteran pitcher who trades quips with a cocky rookie player. 

9. The Umpire

In 1905, Cecil Lean starred in a big-budget baseball musical called "The Umpire."  The show ran for more than 300 performances at Chicago's LaSalle Theatre.  For years, Lean toured in vaudeville with a sketch that employed dialogue, situations and songs from the show.  The act was included in a benefit show staged by The National Vaudeville Artists' Club in June, 1919.  The New York Clipper reported, "Cecil Lean and Cleo Mayfield presented a little patter and song sketch, and drew their quota of appreciation from the pleasure-surfeited throng."  The team brought the act to the 44th Street Theatre in October, 1921.  Variety reported, "Lean and Mayfield were the hit of the show.  The baseball song from one of the musical shows Cecil Lean appeared in several years ago came in particularly appropriate.  He worked it up perfectly, with some local stuff about one of the current series umpires, hitting a popular chord.  Miss Mayfield never looked better and made a corking feeder for the travesty numbers.  The team received a reception when they started and a noisy reward when they finished."
M-G-M adapted the sketch for a short film called His Lucky Day (1929).  The plot was possibly more poignant than funny.  Cecil is on his way home to his wife with tickets to the opening game of the baseball season, but he meets up with friends from his office and loses the tickets in a poker game.  Back home, he consoles his disappointed wife with an imaginary description of the game.  It was Lean's acting in this scene that always drew an enthusiastic response from vaudeville audiences. 

10.  Lane and Harper Baseball Sketch

Joe Lane and Pearl Harper, a good-looking young couple, quickly established themselves in vaudeville with a baseball skit in 1919.  Variety reported, "The girl is a 'looker' with a figure that attracts in a close fitting dress. . . A bit of dancing by her also helped.  [The audience] liked the act muchly."  A miniature baseball field was set up on the stage.  The baseball game's runs, errors and outs were paralleled with Lane's efforts to score a kiss with the lovely Harper.  In September, 1927, the pair issued the following warning in Variety:

"WARNING: Anyone caught infringing on our Vaudeville Baseball bit, written for us by Florenz Ames, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  This bit is fully protected by copyright of the United States, and is the property of Joe Lane and Pearl Harper." 

Lane and Harper performed the skit in revue shows for 17 years.

Selected Reference Source

Kelly, John.  "Nick Altrock: A life rich in the stuff of baseball lore."  The Washington Post (September 20, 2011).

No comments:

Post a Comment